Smith gives Chiefs at least a chance, and that's enough in today's NFL
We can't agree on much in this world, but I think we can agree on this: If you ran the Kansas City Chiefs, you would have traded for Alex Smith.
This doesn't mean it will work. Nothing is guaranteed in life, except for all that money the Yankees owe Alex Rodriguez. But this was a risk that Andy Reid and the Chiefs had to take, because if they didn't, where would they be?
Yes. But also doomed.
We often talk about the NFL being a quarterback league, and it's true. But what does that mean?
The NBA is often called a superstar league, and that's also true, but in both cases, people adapt the facts to fit their theories. The NBA has more superstars than we often realize. You don't really need one of the top three players in the world to win the title, but it seems that way, because we assume the best player on the best team is one of the top three. There are more ways to put together an NBA champion than we think. If it were simple, LeBron James would have won titles with Cleveland. He was the best player in the league there, too.
In the NFL ... yes, of course you need a good quarterback to win. But do you need a great one? Who thought Joe Flacco was a great quarterback three months ago? I think Ben Roethlisberger is a great one and Tony Romo is not, but their career numbers are pretty similar. If you went back eight years and made them switch franchises, would Romo be the two-time Super Bowl champion and Roethlisberger the talented guy who couldn't win the big one?
Having a great quarterback helps. Having a good quarterback is necessary. The difference between good and great is often just surrounding talent. And Smith, on his worst day, is still a good quarterback. People can say Smith is simply a product of Jim Harbaugh's genius, but he still completed 70.2 percent of his passes last year, and that can't all be Harbaugh. The year before, Smith had the 49ers within a play of the Super Bowl. So you don't have to debate whether he can win -- he has shown he can win. The 49ers would have happily kept playing him if Colin Kaepernick were not a superhero. And Smith is not yet 29.
Quarterbacks like this don't come on the market very often, and when one does, you grab him. Smith gives the Chiefs a chance. To illustrate the point, I have put all 32 starting quarterbacks into four categories:
Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Joe Flacco, Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan
Jay Cutler, Cam Newton, Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford, Tony Romo, Matt Schaub, Alex Smith
Ryan Tannehill, Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman, Andy Dalton, Mike Vick, Christian Ponder
The Buffalo guy, the Arizona guy, the Raiders' guy, the Browns' guy, the Jets' guy(s), the Titans' guy, the Jags' guy
We can quibble with where I put these guys, but anyway, these lists are fluid. Of the 12 franchise guys, five only joined the list in the last year: Flacco, Luck, Kaepernick, RGIII, Wilson. Meanwhile, Rivers, Stafford and Newton were franchise guys until recently, and they might get back on the list. Cutler could make that jump too. So could any of the Mystery Guys, but those guys could also turn out to be ... well, Matt Cassel.
The point is: Everybody wants a franchise guy, but not everybody can have a franchise guy. Once quarterbacks reach that level, teams will hold on to them, unless they mess up their neck, the team falls apart and another franchise guy replaces them.
If you run a team, you recognize that getting a franchise guy takes a little luck. But what you can't do is look up one day and realize your starting quarterback is Blaine Gabbert. Then you're hopeless, your fans hate you, free agents want nothing to do with you and you spend five years looking forward to April. Bears fans may gripe about Jay Cutler, and Lions fans may worry about Matthew Stafford's mechanics, but come September, they know that their quarterbacks give them a chance. Maybe not the best chance, but a chance.
Alex Smith gives the Chiefs a chance. And look around: Nobody else really does. There may be a franchise guy somewhere in this draft, but there are no likely franchise guys. If there is a franchise guy, it is somebody who, like Brady and Wilson, was overlooked. Matt Barkley and Geno Smith, the two top prospects, are mysteries. They might win Super Bowls, but they are less likely to do that than Alex Smith.
Now the Chiefs can use the first pick of the draft to pick a lineman to block for and eat with Andy Reid. They can build the rest of the roster knowing that they have a quarterback who gives them a chance. If they somehow find a franchise guy along the way, like the 49ers did with Kaepernick, then great. If not, at least they have a shot.
Four years ago, the Chiefs acquired Matt Cassel for the 34th pick in the draft and the right to fire Scott Pioli later. Cassel had played one season for the New England Automatons, and his numbers were pretty good: 63.4 completion percentage, 21 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 7.16 yards per attempt. But the Patriots missed the playoffs that year, and we have seen so many random schmoes (football term!) look like Pro Bowlers for the Patriots that the buyer should always beware. Plus, Cassel had not even started in college.
Cassel wasn't quite as bad for the Chiefs as people think -- his second year as a starter, the Chiefs finished 9-7, and his numbers were decent: 27 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, mostly in game-manager mode. By the end, though, it was pretty clear that Cassel is a backup quarterback ... which is exactly what he was when the Chiefs traded for him.
If this fails, we can all question the Chiefs. We can say that they should have seen that Smith was more Matt Cassel II than RGIII. But if you were running the Chiefs, what else would you do? This was a chance they had to take.